The jazz trio, supplemented by frequent partner John Scofield, put out another appealing blend of jazz and groove music -- a flavorful if somewhat slight version of what they do best.
If you want a happy story about the triumph of good musicians, about musicians who play with conviction but without commercial compromise yet still have wild commerical success, then the trio Medeski Martin and Wood are for you. With roots in the jazz avant-garde, the band has nevertheless won over a huge audience of fans who might not normally love "jazz". How they did it is a long story, but it is part extremely hard work, part undeniable and distinctive talent, part savvy about the new models of how to build an audience as an independent artist, and part the fact that MMW is genuinely drawn to authentic grooving rhythms -- the kind of greasy funk, say, that the Meters exude. For MMW, this is not commercial compromise at all -- it's great music that happens to set asses in motion.
But that doesn't change the fact that some MMW projects (such as April's Woodstock Sessions, Volume 2 with guitarist Nels Cline) are more forbidding or challenging to the average ear while others are more akin to pure pleasure. The new recording, this time an outing with guitarist John Scofield, is the latter -- a delight, a stroll in the park on a sunny day, a toe-tapper, a glass of lemonade. That is not meant to be a left-handed compliment. Making such a delightful jazz record is no simple task. If it were, almost everyone would do it.
Uniting with Scofield usually brings out the grooving best in MMW. They first played together on the guitarist's A Go Go in 1998. It was one of Sco's most snappy records, and it came out on Verve, giving MMW a new kind of exposure at the time. The four players fit like lost puzzle pieces, with the guitarist never pushing to outshine the trio, nor the other way around. Scofield's tunes on that first disc were built around nuggets of appealing melody, but they were also finely built as "songs". 2006 brought the first "Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood" album, Out Louder, with songs by Scofield, Wood, the Beatles, Peter Tosh, and the whole band, cooperatively. By then, the quartet was touring to huge crowds, the "jam" content of the music was a little higher than the pure "song" content, but it was also a more well-integrated band, and there more moments of magic.
Juice sits somewhere in the middle of those two efforts. It is full of catchy and funky tunes that would have sat well on A Go Go, but there is also New Orleans funk and reggae in the mix. And the band returns to some classic rock, with a cover of The Doors' "Light My Fire", a contemplative meditation on "The Times They Are A-changin'" that I would not have seen coming from this group, and a rock-steady version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" that I'd wager few fans will even recognize for what it is.
The Dylan tune might seem almost too easy, with Medeski giving us his churchiest organ sound, Chris Wood on a fat-toned acoustic bass, and Billy Martin laying in quiet brushwork under Scofield's almost reverential lead on Dylan's line. But, in fact, it is marvelous. The musicians don't fancy anything up, having the courage to play the song simply and with an emphasis on feeling and melody. "Light My Fire" is cool in a somewhat similar way, played as the rock song that it is, with a strong backbeat that eschews too much funk and drives forward on the head as Medeski plays acoustic piano. He then switches to B3 organ for a spiky, super-rhythmic solo, continuing the washes of organ as Scofield plays a gorgeous solo that continually references the tune's famous "baroque" opening lick. What's great about both tunes is that MSMW doesn't revert to its loose, funky shtick on either one, instead giving each a treatment that serves the song while also bringing out great playing.
"Sunshine of Your Love" is an exercise in atmosphere. Wood and Martin lock in tight and spare for about 11 minutes of spooky organ and echoing Ibanez. It is very effective playing, as neither Scofield nor Medeski takes a "solo" as much as the band simply weaves in and out of a jam that is a travelogue of textures and curiosities, particularly as Medeski weaves in haunting harmonies on acoustic piano. Rather than playing this classic rock tune "straight", the band uses it to insinuate a collective creativity that is less associated with Cream or mainstream jazz than it is a with more "avant-garde" music. It's a great example of how MSMW uses a spoonful of sugar to make the creativity go down.
But elsewhere, the funk is delicious. "Sham Time" is the last cover, an Eddie Harris tune on which Medeski's B3 plays the main melody with a nasty Scofield answer. Then the band gets into a shifty Latin groove that Martin rubs into with a New Orleans feel on his snare. Here as elsewhere on Juice, Medeski mixes piano and organ to great effect, as funky on one as the other. Martin's "Louis the Shoplifter" also uses a Latin feel in the rhythm section to set up a stabbing Scofield melody -- Latin funk from the 1960s, but with Medeski playing all the odd notes in just the right way. Scofield is represented by "North London" with its hip-swaying boogaloo funk, "Stovetop", a Latin/Brazilian groover that sounds like a stuttering variant on Jobim's "Agua de Beber", and "I Know You", a slow minor vamp that leads your ear through a lovely series of harmonic shifts. This last tune, contemplative and emotional, is the kind of thing the band's jamband fans might use for a bathroom break from swirly dancing, but that's an error, as it's the most seductive thing the band has ever done.
But maybe better and more exciting is Chris Wood's "Helium", which has a different kind of funk to it -- a tribal sound pounded out on toms and hand drums with shuffling triplets on snare. It's adventurous, with a clear and irresistable bass line that leaves Scofield and Medeski tons of space to improvise, together, at the fringe of the chord changes. This is the song that hints at what MMW was exploring when it had Nels Cline on guitar, and Sco is equally capable of such daring. The taste here is just enough to whet the appetite.
The fact that Juice is so easy to enjoy doesn't make it lesser. Every one of MSMW is capable of crazier, more wild playing. But the band's strength is in its ability to go all sorts of ways, to steer with or against the wind. Now they're on tour, where on one night they may stretch further OUT or steer more directly into the crowd's desire for groove. They do it with intelligence and a sure hand. For this recording, just sit back and enjoy the ride.